Centralization and Decentralization

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Centralization and Decentralization



Research trends and needs

A guide to research materials


The following article deals with the administrative phenomena and problems of centralization and decentralization. Broader political and social aspects are treated in Federalism; Government; Political process; State; Stateless society. For related economic topics see Communism, economic organization of; Planning, economic; Trade and Markets. For related urban and ecological processes see Central place; City; Region; Urban Revolution.

Administrative centralization and decentralization principally describe a condition or a trend in an areal hierarchy of power. This condition or trend can be visualized in two ways. One view contrasts the powers of administrators whose formal authority extends over a large geographic area (for example, a nation) with the powers of administrators whose formal authority is confined to particular segments or subsegments of that area (for example, regions, states or provinces, districts, local communities). Here, the important dimensional setting is geographic, and the classic problem is that of the whole and the individual parts. The second view contrasts the powers of area administrators, arranged on a vertical series of “levels,” with those at higher levels having correspondingly larger geographic areas (for example, relations between United States public health administrators at the national, state, and local levels). Here, the important dimensional setting is hierarchic, and the basic problem is perceived as distribution of authority among the levels.

Both visual images—one is of the segmented plane surface of a map and the other is of a pyramidal series of administrative levels—involve the factors of power distribution, areal jurisdictions, and a relating of the parts to the whole; but they emphasize them differently. Neither image is designed to prejudge how power should be distributed between large areas and their component areas.

Other usages. In broader practice, “centralization,” “administrative centralization,” and their opposites are used in a wholly nongeographic sense to characterize the distribution of power at the capital itself. Thus, “centralization,” sometimes modified by “administrative,” is found as meaning to some authors (a) existence or growth of the power of the chief executive or the bureaucracy at the expense of legislative and judicial institutions;(b) possession, gaining, or nonsharing of substantial power by the upper levels of an administrative hierarchy within the capital; or (c) an expanded or expanding role for the “central” specialized agencies for personnel, purchasing, and budgeting, at the expense of the program-administering executive departments.

Specialized terms. Even within the administrative sphere a single term is needed that will encompass and distinguish between situations where a program’s administration is subdivided either functionally at the capital or areally in the field. Both approaches relate to a single concept: the delegation of power to a lower hierarchical level. Solutions for this terminological problem vary, from use of abbreviated symbols (Maass 1959, pp. 9–26, where adp and cdp refer to areal and capital division of powers) to choice of “decentralization” as the most inclusive term, with territorial and nonterritorial specified as types (Macmahon 1961, chapter 2; Waline [1944] 1963, part II, chapter 3).

In French usage décentralisation is a term reserved for the transfer of powers from a central government to an areally or functionally specialized authority of distinct legal personality (for example, the increase of the degree of autonomy of a local government or of a public-enterprise corporation). Déconcentration, on the other hand, is the French equivalent for “administrative decentralization” within a single government’s hierarchy (Waline 1944). Efforts to obtain general acceptance of this neat distinction have been unsuccessful (Meyer 1957, pp. 56–61; United Nations 1962, p. 3; Maddick 1963, p. 23).

In both England and the United States “decentralization” is the generic term and as such even has some currency in France. Adjectives such as “administrative,” “political,” and “governmental” serve to specify narrower usage, whereas “federalism,” “local self-government,” and “intergovernmental relations” are alternative terms for special purposes. “Devolution,” used by English, but rarely by American, scholars, generally is equal to the French décentralisation but occasionally embraces déconcentration as well.

Field administration. A government’s or agency’s administrative operations outside its national headquarters usually have a neutral designation. In the United States, “field administration” is the term, and the staff involved in such operations is the “field service.” This appears a convenient usage but is not standard internationally. In England, “local and regional organization” is the term, sometimes preceded by “central” to distinguish it from local government proper. In France, the prefectoral system refers to the national government’s field administration system, and the individual ministries’ field services are identified as services extérieurs.

The centralization–decentralization continuum.

Centralization and decentralization are best regarded as opposite tendencies on a single continuum whose poles are beyond the range of any real political system. Total decentralization would require the withering away of the state, whereas total centralization would imperil the state’s capacity to perform its functions. It should be possible to compare individual political or administrative systems by noting their relative positions on the continuum. It should also be possible to characterize any single political or administrative system, over a given time period, as moving toward one or the other pole. Either of these possibilities would entail the use of relative terms like “more” and “less” in lieu of adherence to the popular dichotomous characterization of systems as “centralized” or “decentralized.” Even the use of the last two terms would acquire scientific utility if one could specify a base point or segment in the middle range of the continuum, with centralist tendencies prevailing on one side and decentralist tendencies prevailing on the other.

Scientific discussion is handicapped by the lack of a single term for the phenomenon being examined: centralization–decentralization. To have a single objective term for the whole continuum or a third term designating its balanced middle range would have obvious advantages. Less obvious are the full consequences of this lack. Neither centralization nor decentralization is a neutral term; instead, each is freighted with value connotations. In England and the United States, centralization is seldom treated as good in itself or as the bearer of other goods; it is condemned ab initio, or is accepted reluctantly as a practical necessity, or is explained as the chance aggregate of a number of individually justifiable programmatic decisions. Decentralization, on the other hand, is commonly advocated as a precondition for the achievement and preservation of the basic values of a free society. These prima-facie valuations of the alternatives are encountered more frequently in popular than in scholarly usage, and the decentralist bias is greater with respect to intergovernmental distribution of power than with respect to administrative arrangements within a single government. In France, juris-prudence and history both support a doctrine of the unity of the state and so contribute a centralist bias, although there has also been an eloquent literature of protest that pleads for regionalism, restoration of the ancient provinces, and greater local self-government.


For several millenniums administration was not consciously differentiated from other aspects of governance, either at the capital or in the provinces. Nonetheless, essentially administrative tasks required performance: maintenance of law and order, assessment and collection of revenues, raising of armies, construction of public works. In most states other than city-states, this required the stationing of central officials in the provinces. Their administrative functions were intermixed with military command (although more in the border provinces than in the interior), adjudication of disputes, an almost viceregal representation of the majesty and power of the distant ruler, and reporting of political intelligence to the capital.

Substantial powers had to be delegated to provincial governors, given the primitive state of communications, if the people and resources of a large nation or empire were to be effectively controlled and exploited. Yet such decentralization in itself involved risks for the stability of the state and the retention of power by its current rulers.

A variety of measures were adopted by prudent rulers to ensure the loyalty of their field officials. Among the more common were: initial choice of trusted central officials for field posts, frequent recall to the capital for renewal of loyalty, periodic rotation of field officials among provinces, dispatch of investigators from the central court to tour the provinces and report back or take remedial action on the spot, fragmentation of the provincial administration among parallel officials with independent avenues of communication to the capital, provision for appeals by aggrieved citizens, and, of course, rigorous penalties for disobedience.

Effectiveness and even merely formal maintenance of such controls, however, depended on the vigor of the ruler and his central officials and upon the varying pattern of power distribution in the society. Often the distributive pattern, being based on landholding or traditional local hierarchies, had a strongly geographic character, and neither the ruler nor his agent in the province could impose national will on the local magnate. The nation’s principal magnates collectively might dominate the king’s counsels and individually might claim the right to be the ruler’s agents in their provinces.

Alternatively, the king’s own field agents might use their decentralized authority to increase their private resources, including land, until they themselves became local magnates resistant to royal direction. This development was more likely when field posts were “farmed” (that is, granted to the highest bidder), and therefore exploited by the holder for private profit, or when compensation for service in such posts was by royal grants of land or its usufruct. These adverse features were reinforced whenever heritability of such profitable posts was successfully asserted.

The breakdown of royal authority, as in the Frankish kingdom before and after Charlemagne, and the growth of feudalism were in significant degree consequent on the privatization of the system of royal field administration. Conversely, the development of royal power and of the modern nation-state depended heavily on institution of a loyal and effective system of royal field administration (Fesler 1962a). This, in turn, rested on a growth of royal revenues and institution of the principle of a salaried civil service.

Historically, administrative centralization has often been associated with the growth of royal absolutism, with expansion of bureaucracy, and with impairment of local self-government. This association, however, is not invariable nor does it exhaust the relational patterns. It can be argued, for example, that a condition precedent for national democracies and constitutional governments was the existence of a national bureaucracy capable of carrying into effect whatever decisions might be made at the capital (Friedrich [1937] 1950, chapter 2). An even earlier necessary condition was the differentiation of public administration from private household or estate administration, a distinction that was advanced by a centrally controlled but far-flung bureaucracy administering public affairs over both the king’s and the great lords’ proprietary domains. Finally, local self-government often had been a parochial autocracy or oligarchy, rather than a democracy; displacement of self-serving local magnates and their agents by royal officials might have had a liberalizing effect for the people of the area.

Administrative centralization facilitates the operation of a central will and interest, as against the variety of wills and interests that are dominant in a variety of local areas. The substance of each set of interests and wills is the determinant of virtue or vice in administrative centralization. This substance, of course, may itself be consequent on procedures at the capital and these, history demonstrates, may facilitate one-man rule, oligarchy, or democracy. They may also vary in their accommodating of regional and local interests and wills, whether by territorial representation in the central legislature or conciliar body, by adaptation of laws to different local conditions, or by imposition of democratizing procedures on local governments.

Centralization and decentralization are apparently associated with historical stages of national integration, but the nature of the association has some ambiguities. A politically developing nation typically needs to emphasize integration in order to overcome parochial loyalties that threaten the breakup of the nation. National rulers’ thrusts therefore tend to be centralist. But the geographically fragmented power situation often requires deference to holders of local power, which introduces a decentralist thrust. The successful balancing of these contrary impulses, with partial indulgence of the latter being used to build consent for the former, is often the essence of nation building. On the other hand, a politically developed nation, in which national loyalties are secure and a substantial social consensus prevails, is able to afford a governmental and administrative system that includes a number of formally decentralist arrangements. In one sense, however, this means that formal decentralization is possible only because there already exists a fundamental social centralization—in the fact of the people’s national identification, widely shared values, and internalized restraints on highly parochial and norm-challenging actions.


Delegation of power. Administrative decentralization of power is delegation of power in a geographic setting (except where power is already so diffused that mere continuance of the status quo is in itself decentralization). Accordingly, most of the doctrinal and pragmatic aspects of delegation are relevant. In doctrinal terms, since one may delegate or not delegate a particular portion of one’s power, one can attach such conditions to the use of delegated power by the agent as one chooses; and one can even repossess delegated power. In pragmatic terms, however, power can escape one’s grasp once it is delegated and the agent develops alliances with administrative, political, and economic groups that prefer the agent’s decisional orientation to that of his principal. Both doctrinal and pragmatic considerations incline the careful delegator to specify the conditions governing the use of the delegated power, to establish informational procedures that permit his auditing of the performance of his agents, and to retain and apply sanctions for disapproved behavior [seeDelegation of powers].

The known hazards accompanying delegation of power are commonly deterrents to decentralization. A central official who bears legal and political responsibility for errors in administration of a program will hesitate to delegate portions of his power to local government officials or field agents whose integrity and competence are uncertain. In an elaborate bureaucracy the hesitancy is reinforced by members of the central staff organized in functionally specialized bureaus. Usually the degree of specialization at headquarters cannot be matched by local governments or field offices, and delegation to local and field generalists therefore sacrifices an important component of competence. It also attenuates the bureaus’ direct responsibility for their portions of the national program. This is true because local agents will predictably adjust priorities of effort among program elements in response to heavy work loads, in pursuance of the obligation to adapt the program to the local area’s particular needs, and perhaps in expression of their personal preferences.

Pseudo decentralization. Decentralization of work load, however, is not identical with decentralization of administrative power. To move work load out of the capital may be efficient and convenient for the public and may even promote a feeling that government is close to the people. But it may not involve any decentralization of power, that is, it may not provide the opportunity to exercise substantial local discretion in decision making. The illusion of decentralization is partly the consequence of ease of quantitative measurement of work load (for example, volume of paperwork handled or number of employees needed for the work load), in contrast to the identification and application of indexes of discretionary power. The illusion is also made plausible by the difference between trying to administer everything by correspondence from the capital and administering by face-to-face contact between field official and citizen.

A large work load in the field, relative to that in the capital, may misrepresent the locus of decision making. This is true if most decisions on individual cases are made at the capital, even though field offices receive citizens’ requests for decisions and gather, arrange, and perhaps analyze the data needed for decision making and, after the papers have moved to the capital and back, communicate the central decisions to the citizens concerned. The locus is also misrepresented, even though a large number of decisions are made by field officials, if the criteria to guide local decision making are prescribed so precisely and comprehensively that field officials can only perform the clerical operation of matching the characteristics of each decisional case against detailed rule-book prescriptions.

Gross indicators of decentralization of work load may provide broad hints as to whether some power has actually been decentralized. Thus, if there are no national field agents, the inference is reasonable that there is no administrative decentralization (although there may be because of delegation to provincial and local governments or to geographically specific tribes and fiefdoms), and if nine out of ten national civil servants are stationed in the field (as in the U.S. government), a plausible assumption is that some decentralization of power exists. However, even a very large ratio of field personnel to central personnel is not necessarily a useful index of true decentralization. Such ratios are often largest for the activities with the most centralized decision making, for example, the postal service.

Role of local and intermediate governments. A national government must have contact with the people throughout the political community, even if only for tax collection, raising of armies, and maintenance of law and order [seeLocal government]. This can be either (a) indirect contact through feudal lords, tribal chiefs, or intermediate and local governments or (b) direct contact through direct agents of the national government itself.

Significantly, nation building has typically required the paralleling or supersedure of feudal lords and tribal chiefs by a corps of agents of the national government. The case is less clear with intermediate governments. In the second German Reich and in the Weimar and Bonn republics, the administration of national laws was largely entrusted to the governments of the constituent Länder (Jacob 1963). A somewhat similar arrangement under the American Articles of Confederation proved dysfunctional and was abandoned in the constitution. Political harmony between national and state governments facilitates the articulation of administration by the states with the goals of the national government (for example, development planning in India, where the Congress party has controlled both national and state governments).

Maintenance or extension of decentralization to intermediate and local governments is often the purpose of national grants-in-aid. Similar decentralist intentions are attributed to state grants-in-aid to local governments. But their effect may also be centralist. Conditional grants-in-aid, for example, often provide leverage for national influence on policies and administration of state governments in fields constitutionally or traditionally their own. State governments’ grants-in-aid to local governments tend to freeze the existential and areal pattern of such governments, with the weaker and smaller ones surviving with state funds instead of consolidating to form viable units and areas for vigorous local self-government.

The tendency of national–state and state–local decentralization programs to be functionally specialized establishes or reinforces a vertical alliance among the departments at several levels when these departments are concerned with the same subject matter. This vertical alliance may come to be stronger than an agency’s horizontal identification with the “family” of agencies, concerned with a variety of subject matters, that constitute the whole executive branch of a government at a particular level and for a particular area. Responsiveness to centralized functional forces may thus subvert responsiveness to the chief executive, the legislature, and the political community of the area, although preservation of their roles may be essential to political as well as administrative decentralization (U.S. Congress 1963, The Federal System …).

The degree to which a country’s administrative system is centralized or decentralized is more readily gauged when the system has two, rather than three, tiers of government. The paired relations in a three-tier system are national–state, state–local, and national-local (and even state-state and local-local relations, when they involve voluntary surrender of some powers to a joint authority). In any of these paired relations, the centralist or decentralist forces may predominate, and consistency in this respect among the pairs is not assured. Consequently, the same state government that complains of inadequate decentralization by the national government may be attacked by local governments for centralization at the state capital. And failure of state governments to use their powers to meet the needs of cities may create a vacuum that the national government is urged by city governments to occupy, resulting in direct national-local relations.

Intragovernmental decentralization . A government that wishes to administer directly through its agents, rather than through intermediate or local governments, operates through a field service. Two basic patterns of field services exist: the prefectoral and the functional. Each has a number of variations, and a combination of the two is common.

In a prefectoral system, such as that established by Napoleon, the national government divides the country into areas and places a prefect in charge of each. The prefect represents the whole government, and all specialized field agents in the area are under his supervision. The several ministries either directly or through a central agency issue instructions to the prefect, who then instructs his specialized subordinates, after adapting his instructions to the conditions of his area. Similarly, communications upward to the ministries flow through the prefect. Although it is convenient to refer to this as a prefectoral system, it had many precedents before Napoleon, both in Europe and in ancient empires. It has been widely adopted in recent times and has been the dominant pattern in colonial administration.

In a functional field service, such as that of the United States or the United Kingdom, each ministry (and sometimes many a bureau within ministries) establishes its own field arrangements, dividing the country into areas deemed suitable for the particular function and assigning its own staff members as field agents and directly supervising their work. No provision is made for a general representative of the government, such as a prefect, to supervise the totality of national activities in an area. In periods of national emergency an area coordinator, vested with coordinating powers, may be temporarily provided for; and both in such periods and in less critical times, committees and other devices may be instituted to promote cooperation in an area among ministries’ agents on matters of common interest.

The two systems respectively emphasize area and function as the basis of field organization. Yet, because strong claims can be made for each of these bases, neither system is free of challenges to its purity of form. The prefectoral system seems to maintain its purity most successfully when serving an authoritarian order, as when a colonial power is imposing its rule on an alien population, a national elite is assuring its control of the mass of the people, or a national government confronts overt or latent dissidence in the local elites and general citizenry. Historically, it is associated with performance of a few functions that are critically important to stability of the regime: maintenance of law and order, collection of revenue, supervision of local governments, and appraisal of local opinion.

The functional system of field administration maintains its purity most successfully when governmental functions are numerous and burdensome, when they require specialized training for their performance, and, of course, when consensus is sufficiently high to make law and order and the collection of revenue ordinary, rather than critical, functions. The multiplication of governmental functions not only creates a case for specialized competence but also adds to the work load in the field so that channeling the work load through a single official in an area becomes impractical.

The purity of each system, however, is constantly threatened. The present-day prefectoral system in France conforms poorly to orthodox doctrine. Functional ministries insist on bypassing the prefect and even establish geographical areas not conforming to the prefects’ areal départements (Diamant 1954). In 1964 the de Gaulle government designated 20 regional prefects and gave them authority over most, but not all, central ministries’ field representatives having areal jurisdictions larger than départements. In developing countries the prefectoral systems inherited from French and British colonial regimes have been modified, partly because their orientation to law-and-order functions was poorly adapted to the functions of social and economic development.

In the American and British systems the claim of each function to a distinctive field service is generally allowed only for organization units at the ministry and bureau levels of the central hierarchy. Even so, area–function conflicts arise within individual ministries; the minister is likely to press for ministry-wide coordination in each field area, and the bureaus resist the subordination of “their” field agents to the coordinative role of a regional director for the whole ministry. The conflict is repeated in many settings, for example, in city health departments, whose specialized bureaus often oppose and sabotage district health centers that combine all specialized services under a prefectoral-type director (Kaufman 1963).

Mixed systems are common. The dual-supervision formula prescribes that a specialized field agent is administratively responsible to the generalized field director (for example, prefect or regional director) but technically responsible to his specialized counterpart bureau at headquarters (Macmahon et al. 1941, pp. 265 ff.; Millett 1945; Macmahon 1961, pp. 28–31, 39–42). The dividing line between administrative and technical, however, is difficult to draw and, once drawn, hard to maintain (Axinn 1957). Another formula is to maintain the functional system formally but to invest a coordinative area official with powers of persuasion only, in the hope that his personal qualities, the logic of the situation, and frequent committee meetings will build cooperation among field agents, whose functions should be mutually adjusted.

Intragovernmental decentralization, because it operates primarily through the bureaucracy, is often assumed to preclude participation by citizens and interest groups in decision making. In fact, such participation is often formally prescribed. In the United States some ninety thousand farmers serve on county and community committees of the Department of Agriculture, the selection of individuals for compulsory military service is made by local draft boards composed of citizens of the community, and important wartime economic controls have been administered by local price control and rationing boards and regional war labor boards. In France, prefects of both départements and regions have associated with them economic planning committees representing agricultural, commercial, industrial, and handicraft organizations, labor unions, and professional groups. In England, county and district agricultural executive committees (composed of farmers, landowners, farm workers, and others) serve the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food; and regional boards for industry, representative of employers’ organizations and trade unions, serve under the national Board of Trade. Apart from formal provisions for representative bodies, national field agents are exposed to general and specific influences operative in their assigned areas and may consult extensively with spokesmen for local interests.

Extranational experience . Problems of administrative centralization and decentralization are not confined within national boundaries. Diplomatic and colonial services, programs of technical assistance, and international organizations encounter many of the same problems that are found in a nation’s internal administration. The role of the ambassador involves questions of his scope of discretionary authority, the extent of his authority over other agents of his government who are stationed in the foreign country to which he is assigned, and the danger of his becoming too sympathetic to the interests of the foreign country to serve effectively his own nation’s interests.

Imperial powers encounter critical problems in colonial administration. Although the prefectoral pattern prevailed generally, the British adopted a policy of “indirect rule,” permitting large tribes and tribal federations to be self-governing under stated or implied conditions, and moved toward a “team” concept of district administration in lieu of the prefectoral concept.

The United Nations system confronts the problems of centralization and decentralization under peculiarly difficult circumstances. The fact that the several specialized agencies operate quasiautonomously has naturally led to establishment of distinct field services throughout the world, with regional offices and, in some cases, country offices. Degrees of decentralization among these agencies vary: the World Health Organization appears to go furthest, vesting substantial program-deciding powers in regional committees aided by its regional offices; the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization appears to be at the other extreme (Sharp 1961, p. 235).

Research trends and needs

Much of the best work on centralization and decentralization is of the monographic, case-study type, focused on a single country, agency, or substantive program. Almost none of the empirical experience recorded in these monographs and case studies has been synthesized. One result is that theoretical and prescriptive writing is rarely disciplined by clarification of the conditions under which various degrees and patterns of centralization and decentralization tend to occur, to have particular consequences, and to evolve toward other degrees and patterns. A further characteristic of the work on centralization and decentralization is the distinctness of several literatures, the result of which is that the relevancy of each to the others is largely neglected. The literature on any one country rarely draws on the descriptive and theoretical contributions made by other countries’ political scientists and official commissions of inquiry. In addition, there is little mutual enrichment effected among the studies on the ambassador’s role, the technical assistance mission’s role, and the role of regional directors within a national field-administration system. For instance, the colonial-administration and French literatures are not brought together to explain the prevalence of the prefectoral pattern in both France and colonial areas; and the work on the currently developing countries and on the emergence of modern states in Europe is not correlated to clarify processes of national integration.

The literature on administrative centralization and decentralization has, in general, isolated a group of well-defined problems, and its cumulative impact establishes the similarity of these problems among countries and in different historical periods. Emphasis, however, has been placed preponderantly on problems within the governmental bureaucratic system and rarely with attention to how these problems are met within other large organizations, such as business corporations and church hierarchies. Except in France, few studies have been made of the origins and personal characteristics of field administrators or of their actual behavior when subjected to conflicting national and local influences. Political scientists have only recently given substantial attention to noncontemporary field-administration systems and to the dynamics of development through time (Fesler 1962b; Fried 1963; Jacob 1963), although professional historians of institutions have furnished a rich body of descriptive information from the Chinese, Roman, and Byzantine empires to the modern period. Many monographic studies, and some general treatments, have been narrowly administrative, neglecting the interplay between administration and other elements of the political system and of society itself—despite the fact that in many political systems the centralist or decentralist character of administration is explicable primarily as a reflection of, or counterweight to, the centralist or decentralist tendencies of the non-administrative portions of the political and social system.

The state of the literature may be summarized as follows: The large aggregate of descriptive and analytical studies has succeeded in identifying most of the problems relevant to administrative centralization and decentralization, but recorded empirical experience has not yet been ordered in such a way as to specify conditions under which particular responses to those problems are most appropriate. As such an ordering is attempted, gaps will be discovered in knowledge of important variables, and these may then be subjected to specifically focused research. Among the probable focuses are the origins, training, and behavior of field administrators; the dynamics of a field system’s evolution over time; and the interplay between administration and other portions of the political and social systems. The development of empirically based theory will also require the drawing together of separate literatures on different settings of twentieth-century governmental experience, on the experience of earlier centuries, and on business and ecclesiastical administration.

A guide to research materials

A large number of contributions to the study of administrative centralization and decentralization are intermixed with treatments of federalism, local government, the region, and diplomacy.

Few cross-national studies have been made. The most useful are focused on developing countries (Maddick 1963; United Nations 1962). Cowan (1958) compares French and British local colonial administration in west Africa and the changes in the period since independence. Macmahon (1961), Meyer (1957), and Fesler (1949; 1962b) undertake general analyses of recurrent problems in administrative centralization and decentralization.

Individual countries’ systems of administrative centralization and decentralization are extensively described and analyzed, both by scholars and by official bodies. The International Review of Administrative Sciences occasionally carries articles on particular systems. Annex III of the United Nations report (1962, pp. 133–243) gives separate descriptions of patterns of decentralization in 12 countries, including those of several “developed” countries. Descriptive information on provincial administration in 43 countries is included in Humes and Martin (1961). Particularly valuable are the numerous papers presented at the Sixth World Congress of the International Political Science Association (International Political Science Association 1964).

The French prefectoral system has probably a larger literature than any other system. The most helpful volume in English, with an extensive bibliography, is by Chapman (1955), and a useful historical and biographical account is given in French by Pierre Henry (1950). The journal La revue administrative contains relevant documentation and articles. The contrasting Italian prefectoral system’s development and characteristic features are well set forth by Fried (1963).

For England, particularly, scholarly descriptions and analyses of decentralization are principally to be found in the abundant publications about local government. However, the English system of field administration is well, although briefly, described and a bibliography is provided in Mackenzie and Grove (1957, pp. 260–280) and more extensively in the earlier work by Dhonau (1938). A number of official reports have been illuminating; they are usually noted in the journal Public Administration.

A substantial literature in field administration in the United States has accumulated (see bibliographical references in Fesler [1946] 1959). Fresh approaches have been initiated by Axinn (1957), Freeman (1962), Gore (1956), and Kaufman (1960), who use empirical methodology to explore the interplay between organizational and local influences. Among the subject matter settings of decentralization, the ones attracting the greatest scholarly attention have been natural resources development and agricultural services and regulation. Intergovernmental administrative relations have been fully documented and analyzed by official bodies, with greatest attention being given to the grants-in-aid system. A good account of Germany’s administrative adjustments to federalism, strongly contrasting with those of the United States, can be found in Jacob (1963).

Decentralization has been recently emphasized in the U.S.S.R., Yugoslavia, and eastern Europe generally, but scholarly analysis of its current impact and ultimate consequences has been highly tentative. This stems largely from insufficiency of data for judging the decentralization program’s degree of harmonization with such centralist orientations as are implied by ideological conformity, one-party rule, and national economic planning.

Asian and African experience, both under colonial regimes and after independence, has been much studied, with the focus on the district officer (or comparable field agent) and on local government. The Indian Journal of Public Administration and the Journal of African Administration are especially valuable, giving much attention to methods and problems of administrative decentralization. Maddick (1963) provides a substantial bibliography for Asian and African nations.

The United Nations’ arrangements and difficulties in field administration are comprehensively described in Sharp (1961), and the relevant problems encountered by both the United Nations and the United States in their technical assistance programs in Latin America are discerningly portrayed by Glick (1957). The role of the United States ambassador as a field agent has been touched on by a succession of official and quasi-official inquiries. One admirably conceived and documented study is that conducted by a subcommittee under the chairmanship of Senator Henry Jackson (U.S. Congress 1963–1964, Administration of National Security …).

James W. Fesler

[See alsoAdministration; Federalism; Government; Modernization; Nation; Political process.]


Axinn, George H. 1957 The Milieu Theory of Control. Public Administration Review 17:97–105.

Benson, George C. S. 1941 The New Centralization: A Study of Intergovernmental Relationships in the United States. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.

Chapman, Brian 1955 The Prefects and Provincial France. London: Allen & Unwin.

Cowan, L. Gray 1958 Local Government in West Africa. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Dhonau, May L. 1938 Decentralisation in Government Departments. London: Institute of Public Administration.

Diamant, Alfred C. 1954 The Department, the Prefect, and Dual Supervision in French Administration: A Comparative Study. Journal of Politics 16:472–490.

Fesler, James W. (1946) 1959 Field Organization. Pages 246–273 in Fritz Morstein Marx (editor), Elements of Public Administration. 2d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Fesler, James W. (1949) 1964 Area and Administration. University: Univ. of Alabama Press.

Fesler, James W. 1962a French Field Administration: The Beginnings. Comparative Studies in Society and History 5:76–111.

Fesler, James W. 1962b The Political Role of Field Administration. Pages 117–143 in Ferrel Heady and Sybil L. Stokes (editors), Papers in Comparative Public Administration. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan, Institute of Public Administration.

Freeman, J. Leiper 1962 Some Characteristics of Field Officials in the Federal Civil Service. Pages 31–54 in Lynton K. Caldwell (editor), Politics and Public Affairs. Bloomington: Indiana Univ., Institute of Training for Public Service.

Fried, Robert C. 1963 The Italian Prefects: A Study in Administrative Politics. Yale Studies in Political Science, Vol. 6. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Friedrich, Carl J. (1937) 1950 Constitutional Government and Democracy. Rev. ed. Boston: Ginn. → First published as Constitutional Government and Politics.

Glick, Philip M. 1957 The Administration of Technical Assistance: Growth in the Americas. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Gore, William J. 1956 Administrative Decision-making in Federal Field Offices. Public Administration Review 16:281–291.

Henry, Pierre 1950 Histoire des préfets: Cent cinquante ans d’administration provinciale, 1800–1950. Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Latines.

Humes, Samuel; and Martin, Eileen M. 1961 The Structure of Local Government Throughout the World. The Hague: Nijhoff.

International Political Science Association 1964 Papers on Decentralization Presented at the Sixth World Congress of the Association. Unpublished manu-script, International Political Science Association, Paris.

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Centralization and Decentralization